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Using Alternative Training Equipment for Baseball Training

By Brian Niswender, MA, CSCS
Worldwide Baseball Prospects Strength Coach and Mentor
Former Arizona Diamondbacks Director of Minor League Strength and Performance

The last 5 years has seen many “new” baseball training methods or use of alternative baseball training methods. In most cases these so called new methods were actually developed many years ago possibly decades ago, and the resurgence of these styles is exciting even though many coaches have been using them for years. Now that many of these methods have become main stream, an explanation of how to use these tools for baseball is appropriate.

In this article I want to cover the use of the sledge hammer, tires for speed and strength, sandbags, strength straps, and weighted baseballs and bats. As I try to explain the use of these tools please understand that they are just tools, and can be used in many ways, but we are trying to increase a baseball player’s performance and so we will explain the use of these methods specific to baseball.

 One of the most dynamic tools to reappear is the sledge hammer. The hammer gives the athlete the chance to move in so many different directions while accelerating the hammer to great velocities, but just like many of these new tools choosing the right exercise and weight of the tool can make or break the athlete. The hammer comes in many different weights from 5lbs to 30lbs.
So how do we choose the right weight for the athlete?

If the athlete is able to control the hammer for the specific movement then the weight is correct. This control will be specific to the exercise. Any over head 2 hand full swinging either on a high target or low target will give the athlete a strength advantage and so more weight can be used, but the athlete must be able to stay square to the target and the hammer must travel symmetrically over head. If the athlete leans to one side or must use one arm more than the other the hammer is too large. This movement is the basic starting point for any dynamic hammer exercise and so should be perfected before moving on.

In baseball many players and coaches want to use heavy objects to simulate the hitting motion and the hammer is just a tool many coaches will use, but is it appropriate to try to swing the hammer like a baseball bat?

I am going to say no, the reason being that the hammer is so heavy in comparison to the bat that many times trying to swing it like a bat leads to bad habits in the swing.

Movements that mimic the baseball swing are more appropriate, and the cross over to the swing will be more effective. These movements are the 2 hand side swing, cross swing, and the switch back swing.

In each of these movements the body must generate rotational power into the target. To teach these movements start off with a light hammer and work on the specifics of the exercise. Keep the athlete in the right plane and make sure they can keep a solid foundation. The athlete also needs to be reminded that the hammer exercises are about power and so the hammer should move fast with maximal effort every rep, speed over strength in baseball specific movements in almost all cases.
            The use of tractor tires has been very popular in the last few years, but are seen in football programs or fighting programs in most cases. I think the use of tires large and small can be very effective for baseball players as well. The tires are very useful for an object to hit while using the hammers, but can also be used for hitting with a bat.

Most coaches and some players have seen how a tire is used for increasing power and contact force, by hitting it with a normal swing, but the bat can also be used as a hammer to hit the tire. When using the bat as a hammer the player is able to do over head hitting, side hitting as well as single arm movements as well.

I have provided a few examples, but this will not be the main focus of tire use in this article. Using tires for speed development is a very cost effective alternative to a sled. Tires come in many different sizes and weights so a variety of tires is usually needed to meet the needs of the athlete. Towing the tire in any speed work will add resistance to the run and can increase speed and power, but there are rules to try to abide by in using any towing tool. When the athlete is trying to increase speed the tool should not decrease the players speed by more than 20%, and this is a high percentage, as the player becomes faster the decrease in speed should not reach more than 10%.

So if you have a player that runs a 5.00sec. 40yrd sprint then while towing the tire they should not run slower than 6.00 sec. if the player cannot maintain the speed then they will need to decrease the tire weight.

The tire can also be used to power development for speed. In these types of exercises the player is still towing the tire but may be only covering 5 to 10 yards in each rep. We are not as concerned about how fast they cover the distance, but they must use 100% effort on each rep. The player will use heaver tires and the effort or trying to move the object fast even if it does not will increase power. These exercises are specific to speed development. 

But what if you want to use the tires for strength and total body power?  One exercise that is very popular and can be seen all over the web is the tire flip. This is great movement that uses triple extension and so utilizes the body top to bottom. Since this is a common exercise we will just mention it here. Another great tire exercise is the tire press throw; this is great way to teach a player to be strong and powerful out of the fielding position.

The tire role is also effective in teaching body control and balance, a hill is used to provide resistance, as the player pushes it up the hill. The hands are used for control and speed; the legs are used for propulsion, a great total body exercise. Tires are great, inexpensive tools that are very durable.

 Sandbags are another great tool that can add resistance to any workout. The advantage a bag has is that it conforms to the user making it easy to carry without pain. We have also seen the bag used for swinging and throwing as well. This is a simple tool, but very effective. Find different sized tire tubes to make every size needed. The use of bike tubes for small bags can make great hand weights for shoulder stability exercises as well.

 Suspension training has made a big surge in the last few years and is very effective is core strength of the shoulder and mid torso. The free hanging straps give freedom of movement so require the body to be still and under control. This training of course was first developed by gymnasts and has many applications to total body strength. In the past a set of gymnastics rings were used and hung so push-ups and horizontal pull-ups could be performance. As coaches started to use the equipment more and more the
exercises evolved into including the suspension of the legs, while standing as well as lying down.

All of these exercises are great, but I want to hit on few that are more specific to baseball players. The suspension push-up rotation is a great variation on a push-up. The horizontal pull-up rotation is also a great variation. In all suspension exercises body weight is used for resistance and so these types of exercises can be used at any time, no matter the age.

A couple tools we feel are very misunderstood are the weighted baseballs and weighted bats. These tools have been around for a very long time, but there application is very murky. One key note we try to get players and coaches to understand is that weighting the movement of throwing or hitting can become dangerous very quickly.

These movements require great torque and control of the body and in the instance of throwing use a very long lever to hurl the ball. After many years of training baseball players at the professional and collegiate levels and playing with these tools I have a few suggestions that have been very successful in increasing bat speed as well as arm speed.

If at all possible use a speed gun while using weighted baseball to throw. Just as in speed training a percentage of decrease is used to determine the work load. In throwing, the speed should not decrease by more than 10%. So if you have a player throwing 75mph they should only go up to a ball maximum that decreases there ball velocity by 7.5 mph.

In hitting, the percentage can go up to 20%. In these applications constant monitoring is needed to not only protect the player but also promote maximal performance outcomes.

In specific movement skills like hitting and throwing speed is key, but speed while keeping mechanics is the key to reaching maximal performance.

This is no means a comprehensive look at these tools but an introduction to some of the new things out there to use as a coach, player or parent. In many instances many of these applications become the main focus of a training program. With that said, I will come back to the understanding that these are just tools and the application of these tools in a comprehensive player development program is what builds strong and injury free players. Baseball players must be strong, fast, and powerful. They must control incredible forces while trying to hit or throw a small object. Using tools like the ones presented in this article allow the player to create an effective training environment while decreasing the day to day monotony of training.

I leave you with one thought that I have paraphrased from the great Bruce Lee, “use no way as the way, ” or don’t get locked into one way of doing things, understand the application of the tools of performance training, and your players will be making leaps and bounds in performance.

Brian has his Masters Degree in Kinesiology, Bachelors Degree in Exercise Physiology and a Minor in Coaching from the University of Northern Colorado. He has worked with Major League Baseball Teams such as Arizona Diamond Backs,  Milwaukee Brewers,  Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, New York Yankees, Colorado Rockies and College Baseball Teams such as Indiana University, Colorado State University, University of Northern Colorado, Purdue University.

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